When you think about what a space telescope goes through to get out of the gravity well and into its planned position, it’s a wonder that instruments this exacting can survive the journey. Launch vibration can reach six times Earth gravity and higher, while temperatures are all over the place as the launch vehicle moves from a temperate climate into the deep chill of space.

Countering all this while ever tightening the parameters of our instruments is a herculean challenge, but there is good news out of Goddard Space Flight Center, where Babak Saif and Lee Feinberg have gone to work on the problem. Working with Perry Greenfield at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the duo have been using an instrument called the High-Speed Interferometer (HSI), developed in Arizona by 4D Technology, to measure the changes that can occur over the surface of a spare 5-foot mirror segment, along with its support hardware, from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The HSI was designed to measure dynamic changes at the nanometer level in JWST optical components, but Saif and Feinberg have been probing even tighter requirements. When we get into the practice of studying exoplanet atmospheres, even atomic-scale distortion can affect a space observatory’s ability to focus and analyze the light of an Earth-class planet, which must be distinguished from the light of its parent star. To achieve this feat, the observatory would have to have optical components that move no more than 12 picometers, which is about one-tenth the size of a hydrogen atom. As demanding as JWST is, this ramps up the challenge.

Image: Goddard optics experts Babak Saif (left) and Lee Feinberg (right), with help from engineer Eli Griff-McMahon an employee of Genesis, have created an Ultra-Stable Thermal Vacuum system that they will use to make picometer-level measurements. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk.

No observatory yet built, including JWST, has been built that can meet such demanding requirements for stability. But the High-Speed Interferometer has allowed the GSFC scientists to measure dynamic changes across the mirror and structural components. What Feinberg and Saif bring to the table are new algorithms that can take the level of dynamic movement measurement down to 25 picometers, about twice what will eventually be required.

This is measurable progress toward the goal:

“These future missions will require an incredibly stable observatory,” said Azita Valinia, deputy Astrophysics Projects Division program manager. “This is one of the highest technology tall poles that future observatories of this caliber must overcome. The team’s success has shown that we are steadily whittling away at that particular obstacle.”

Working with 4D Technology, GSFC’s team has produced a ‘speckle interferometer’ that allows measurements on both reflective and diffuse surfaces at the picometer-level. The Goddard team is now analyzing its performance in a thermal vacuum test chamber that can control temperatures to the 1 millikelvin level. The plan moving forward is to test items within the chamber to see if the 12-picometer goal is within reach. “We’re getting there,” says Saif.

The key in this testing regime is to test at the same level across the entire structure of the telescope, not just movement between its mirrors. These HSI tests are encouraging, leveraging an instrument developed to work with the Webb telescope’s 18 mirror segments, mounts and supporting structures. Splitting light and recombining it to measure the effects of motion and vibration, the HSI allows the scientists to examine changes across the entire telescope.

The introduction of the speckle interferometer now points to the 12-picometer accuracy our future missions will demand. This is good news all around for atmospheric biosignature analysis.